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STUDY: Houston Media Help Misrepresent Equal Rights Ordinance

Television news stations in Houston have misrepresented the city's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which will be up for public repeal in November. Media outlets have uncritically parroted myths about the ordinance's protections for transgender people and failed to tell viewers that HERO prohibits discrimination on the basis of a wide range of characteristics, including sex, race, and religion. 

  • Houston Voters Will Decide On Equal Rights Ordinance This November

    Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance Prohibits Discrimination On 15 Characteristics. Enacted in May 2014, HERO prohibits discrimination in areas like employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of 15 characteristics including race, sex, religion, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. [Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, accessed 8/13/15]

    Texas Supreme Court Decided HERO Must Be Repealed Or Put To A Vote. After opponents of the ordinance organized a signature-collection campaign to challenge city hall, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in July that HERO must either be repealed or put up for a city-wide vote. The City Council voted to send HERO to the voters, setting up a ballot fight over whether the ordinance will remain on the books. [Dallas Voice, 8/5/15]

    The Majority Of Discrimination Complaints Filed Since HERO's Passage Have Involved Race, Sex, And Age. According to Houston Equality, a group working to defend HERO, the overwhelming majority of cases of discrimination reported to the City of Houston's Office of the Inspector General in the months since HERO was approved by the City Council concerned race, sex, and age:

    Since May 28, 2014, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance has NOT been in e­ffect as a result of attempts to repeal the law by opponents.

    Cases of discrimination have been reported to the City of Houston's Office of the Inspector General. These reports were made by people who were informed enough to contact the OIG's office, but consider all of the cases that have gone unreported.

    Below is a breakdown of the types of discrimination that have been reported to the City between May 28, 2014 and January 15, 2015.

    [Houston Equality, accessed 8/13/15]

    Opponents Have Peddled Baseless 'Bathroom Horror Stories' To Attack HERO

    Opponents Falsely Claim That HERO Allows Sexual Predators To Sneak Into Restrooms. HERO's opponents, including Fox News' Mike Huckabee and Texas Values' Jonathan Saenz, have claimed since the ordinance was introduced that its ban on discrimination against transgender people would allow male sexual predators to dress up as women and sneak into women's restrooms. [Equality Matters, 5/13/14 and 5/30/14]

    Independent Experts Have Debunked The Transgender Bathroom Myth. Law enforcement officials, victims' rights advocates, and human rights commission officials in states and localities with transgender non-discrimination protections have debunked the claim that sexual predators will exploit non-discrimination laws, calling it “beyond specious.” [Media Matters3/20/14]

    Houston Media Misrepresent HERO While Repeating Opponents' Bathroom Myth

    Houston Outlets Rarely Mentioned Non-LGBT Protections In HERO. In the two weeks following the Texas Supreme Court's decision, Houston's ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates focused on HERO's protections for the LGBT community - including repeating critics' false talking points about public restrooms - while ignoring its broad protections for other groups:

    • 40% Of All HERO Coverage Included Discussion Of HERO's Impact On Bathrooms Or B-roll Footage Of Restrooms
    • Less Than 10% Of HERO Coverage Noted That HERO Protects Classes Other Than Sexual Orientation And Gender Identity. 

    Media Outlets Repeated Opponents' Bathroom Myth In Coverage Of HERO. In their scripts and choice of B-roll footage - scene setting video shown during a news report - in stories about HERO, local TV media outlets repeatedly alluded to unfounded concerns about bathroom safety:

    • Both Fox And CBS Included B-roll Footage Of Restrooms Without Commentary In Over Half Of Their HERO Coverage.

    Houston Media Outlets Previously Failed To Debunk Myths About HERO. During coverage of HERO in 2014, Houston media outlets uncritically repeated misinformation about the measure, including the transgender bathroom myth and concerns about religious liberty. [Equality Matters, 6/27/15]

    This post has been updated for clarity. 


    Media Matters used IQMedia to search Houston's NBC affiliate KPRC, CBS affiliate KHOU, ABC affiliate KTRK, and Fox affiliate KRIV, between July 24 and August 7 for the terms “discrimination,” “nondiscrimination,” “non-discrimination,” “anti-discrimination,” “antidiscrimination,” Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, “HERO,” “equal rights,” and “ordinance.” Coverage was categorized as mentioning the bathroom myth if either commentary on the ordinance's impact on bathrooms and/or B-roll footage of bathroom signs were included. Four KRIV segments covering a separate petition submitted to Houston City Hall by anti-gay activist Dave Wilson seeking to ban transgender people from public restrooms were excluded from analysis. Reruns, teases for upcoming segments, and passing mentions in the course of reports about other topics were also excluded.